Webb Telescope images show ‘how much is waiting to be revealed’
Nearly 1 million miles from Earth, the telescope named for a Carolina alumnus has begun to unveil 13.5 billion years of cosmic history, says a Morehead Planetarium and Science Center expert.
Nearly 1 million miles from Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope is giving Earthlings a glimpse into previously unseen parts of our universe.
The scientific instrument bears the name of James E. Webb ’28. Webb graduated from the UNC School of Education and led NASA from 1961 to 1968.
Launched in December, the telescope has been calibrating and collecting images previously unavailable to the public — until now. In mid-July, NASA unveiled multiple breathtaking photos showcasing an array of galaxies, stars and more.
Back on planet Earth, Amy Sayle coordinates events and presents shows for North Carolina skygazers as a science education specialist at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. Sayle received her doctorate in epidemiology from Carolina and began working as a part-time show presenter during her final semester in 1998. She’s been a full-time educator for the planetarium since 2007.
The Well spoke with Sayle about what these new images mean and how they make our universe feel a lot bigger.
How does the Webb Telescope differ from the Hubble?
The Webb can be thought of as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The Hubble is still operating. So, the Hubble is in low Earth orbit, which was important when it had problems at the beginning and astronauts had to go and fix the telescope. That is not an option for the James Webb Space Telescope. It is roughly a million miles away from Earth. No human has ever been that far into space. And it’s orbiting around a point called L2 and must be shielded from the sun, Earth and the moon. It’s got a giant solar shield the size of a tennis court, and its mirror is much bigger than Hubble’s, which makes the collecting area of the mirror much greater. The Webb mirror is 6.5 meters across, which is roughly 21 feet, and it’s optimized for infrared wavelengths, which the Hubble is not.
It can capture more light, which is everything for a telescope. It’s going to be able to look basically over 13.5 billion years of cosmic history because it can see so far. Whenever you look at something far away, you’re looking back in time because the things that you see, you’re seeing because of the light. And light takes time to get to our eyes, although light does travel really fast, 186,000 miles per second. Even the moon is over a light second away from us. So, when you see the moon, you’re actually seeing it back in time.
As an astronomy fan, what was your initial reaction upon seeing the Webb images?
Honestly, I felt teary. It’s so nice to see something on the front page of major news outlets that is just good.
The way I would describe that photo is just a stunning photo showing baby stars being born. They’re calling them cosmic cliffs. You’re getting to see baby stars and it’s because the Webb Telescope can see through the dust, basically.
This shows a group of five galaxies with four of them interacting in a sort of cosmic dance. A little tidbit: [The Milky Way is] on a collision course of its own with the Andromeda galaxy. So, mark your calendar for 4 billion years, give or take.
Southern Ring Nebula
I love how you can clearly see that it’s a binary star system in the second image. I also love how a galaxy is captured in the image. I heard one of the scientists say that basically galaxies are photobombing our images and galaxies are like a contaminant in most of the images that we’re taking. The southern nebula is called a planetary nebula. That’s a totally misleading term because it doesn’t really have much of anything to do with planets. It’s a dying star that’s experiencing a massive weight loss diet right now and is shedding off its layers. That’s the future of our sun, by the way. Our sun will eventually do that.
It’s showing water vapor in an exoplanet atmosphere. It’s not the first time water vapor has been discovered on an exoplanet, but it just shows what this telescope can do. Of course, one of the big questions that people have always had is: Are there other worlds like ours? Are we alone in the universe?
I love that image because it shows things at so many different distances. You can see stars in our own galaxy — the ones with the diffraction spikes. Then there’s a galaxy cluster, which is so far away we’re seeing it as it looked 4.6 billion years ago. Because of the gravitational lensing that the combined mass of the galaxy cluster is doing, we’re also able to see galaxies that are even farther away. It’s acting like a magnifying glass and warps the shapes.
“Hold up one finger to the sky with no bend in your elbow. Stretch your arm all the way out and find a patch of dark sky where you don’t see anything. You don’t see the moon, a planet or a star — just a dark patch. Now, imagine a grain of sand on the tip of your finger covering up that tiny patch of dark sky. Then just take in what a small portion of the sky that grain of sand would cover. Now I’m going to show you what the Webb Telescope saw when it took a long exposure of a similar patch of dark sky.”
— Amy Sayle describing the image below to Morehead Planetarium and Science Center audiences, based on NASA’s scale comparison.
What do you love about astronomy?
It’s about all the big stuff, about understanding the universe that we live in. Carl Sagan famously said, “We are made of star stuff.” The elements in your body — such as the calcium in your bones, the iron in your blood — that was forged in stars.
Which image strikes a chord with you the most?
The first one revealed [SMACS 0723], just in terms of what we’re looking at. Just that concept of how much there is within this tiny little patch of sky. It feels metaphorical to me. Look at how much is waiting to be revealed.